Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lost in Translation

By Mark W. Danielson

(To the tune of The Beverly Hillbillies . . .)

Come and listen to a story ‘bout a man named Jed. A tired airline pilot who had nothing in his head. Then one day he went looking for some food, ended up with a bus driver who was in a foul mood.

Well out came a bus, so he climbed right on. But the five o’clock bus, had yet to come along. Ended up with a tour, of the Narita airport. Thankfully he remembered, to bring his passport.

The guard waves them on, and they pull in Terminal One. Once a few get off, then the bus is on the run. Terminal Two is next, so we stop, the rest get out. All I can do is wait, would do no good to pout.

The driver checks his mirror, and sees I’m still riding his bus. He casts an angry look, and he makes a little fuss. I say “No Get Off”, so he’s leaving me alone. He’s probably thinking, that this Yankee Dog is stoned.

After fifteen minutes, we’re finally under way. My co-pilot probably figures, that I just don’t want to play. We were supposed to meet at five, to ride the Downtown bus. Who knew I’d get on, the 4:50 Airport bus?

Not me. That’s for sure . . . Next time I’ll know the airport bus leaves late.

So, the bus swings by, Terminal One once more. No one to pick up, so my driver pedals the floor. Terminal Two produces, the very same result. I can hardly wait, to hear my co-pilot’s insult.

We arrive at the hotel, just in time to wave good bye. To the 5:40 Narita bus, that is now passing us by. The next downtown bus isn’t until 6:10, damn! I’m really hungry now, better take off like a ram.

So I head into town, on the route I’ve done before. Trekking through rice fields on roads, before it starts to pour. The sun has now set, it gets dark before too long. But my pace is fast, so I’m nearly into town.

I arrive in Narita minutes, before the next hotel bus leaves. Too much time to kill, after the McDonalds I have to eat. So I wait for the bus, and who should come along? Thankfully not my co-pilot, but someone I’d like to gong.

We get on the bus, and finally make it back. Only wasted four hours for my simple Big Mac. So the next time I’m there, I’ll check the time for sure. Buses may leave late, so confusion can be near.

Never trust a driver who will not give you a clue, but the bottom line is, it’s always up to you. Just so you know, this isn’t really about Jed. Just a tired airline pilot who had nothing in his head.

Fun times, international travel. Jet lag. Language problems. Y’all fly safe now, ya here?

(If you'd like to read more about some of my international travels, check out the travel section on my web page @

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Can you train a writer?

After adding a comment to my friend Gary Corby’s excellent blog A dead man fell from the sky, he asked whether I had an opinion about a question in one of the other comments. Since it’s central to writing, I thought it would be worth replaying it and my response here.

The question came from someone whose friend had suggested that he needed some form of training (in connection with his writing). This friend said to him ‘why don’t you attend a writing course?’ and he was wondering whether it would be worth doing so. My response was as follows:

The question would need an extended debate really but my quick(ish) response is: first, who is this ‘friend’ and what are his/her qualifications as a literary critic? What exactly does he/she mean by suggesting you’re not ‘trained’? Is it even possible to ‘train’ someone to write? I think if the impulse to write is there, that’s the main qualification to do so. We all learn as we write, we refine and adapt our style and vocabulary to each subject.

If I’m asked for one piece of advice to offer would-be writers, I usually say ‘Trust your own voice’. By that I mean don’t get fooled into thinking there’s a ‘right’ way to write. It’s better if you can spell and if your grammar’s not so feeble that your sentences are incomprehensible but outside those ‘restrictions’, any mode of expression is legitimate. If it’s way out of line with ‘normal’ speaking and writing, you may find it hard to get an audience but the important thing is not to think you need big words, flowery phrases or ‘writing’. Read Elmore Leonard’s 10 ‘rules’ for writing – they’re amusing and to the point (and valuable).

I’m wary of creative writing courses. I’m sure there are some brilliant ones, but there are also plenty which indoctrinate their graduates into parroting stuff about shifting points of view, not starting paragraphs with ‘And…’ and all sorts of other things that have little to do with creativity.

(And, as a postscript, let me ask how many of you noticed the grammatical mistake I made in the opening sentence. I only spotted it myself on rereading and decided to leave it there to generate some apoplexy amongst people who get upset about faulty grammar and spelling. In other words, people like me.)

Monday, July 25, 2011


By Shane Cashion

I’ve read that Hell has nine layers. For the past week, the temperature in St. Louis has vacillated between the fourth and fifth layers. The roof of the parking garage at my old office is the sixth layer. Inside my car on the roof of the parking garage at my old office is the seventh layer. The space between my underwear and my skin - that bunches up - inside my suit pants - when I sit inside my car - on the roof of the parking garage - at my old office - is the eighth layer. To visit the devil’s ninth layer of Hell I’d have to wear new jeans - that aren’t prewashed - inside my car - on the roof of the parking garage - at my old office.

To be fair, it’s not so much the temperature that’s unbearable, it’s the humidity. I’ve been to Vegas during the dog days of summer and, admittedly, it’s hot, like walking behind a bus, but at least you’re dry. Here we’re all soaking wet, like an entire city of drunks going through withdrawals. Showers don’t even work. They don’t take, especially if you have body hair, which is admittedly a big part of the problem. I have way too much hair.

I’ve never bought into the whole manscaping fad, and now even feel a sense of vindication that hair is making its triumphant return. I always knew it would. I just had to wait it out. Unfortunately, with hair comes additional heat and sweat, particularly under my arms. My armpits run like faucets during the summer, making it difficult for me to interact with my fellow human beings.

All is not lost though; there are options beyond manscaping. Chief among them is Botox. Botox has been proven to be effective in treating the symptoms of severe underarm sweating, more commonly known as severe primary axillary hyperhidrosis. Unfortunately, Botox comes with certain side effects: dry mouth; tiredness; headaches; neck pain; double vision; blurred vision; decreased vision; drooping eyelids; swollen eyelids; itchy rashes; swelling; shortness of breath; loss of strength; muscle weakness; hoarseness; change of voice; loss of voice; trouble saying words clearly; loss of bladder control; and trouble breathing and swallowing.

While I already suffer from most of these afflictions, a few would be new and potentially life threatening, and thus a bit worrisome. At this point, sweat isn’t worth dying over, though I trust it would make for an entertaining, Monty Python – esque, eulogy: Soooooo conscious was he of his objectionable underarms to the senses of his fellow man, that he endured endless bouts of crippling incontinence, living like a shut-in, smeared in his own waste, trying desperately to wrap his limp tongue around the words necessary to summon his wife for help, until finally he succumbed, lo these many months later, to the side of effects of the only proven cure for this wretched condition, his armpits as dry as dust.

I guess for now I’ll have to continue to search for a less extreme remedy, at least until winter blows in with its refreshing cool air, once again allowing me to wave to my friends and acquaintances with confidence. In the meantime, fellow sweaters of the world, I stand beside you, arms rooted firmly to my sides, as I share in your public humiliation, and hope against hope for a cure to this dreadful condition so that one day we may all raise our arms in victory without shame.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dexter Meets Clarinda Clarabelle and the Bear

by Jaden Terrell

I've been reading a lot of unpublished manuscripts lately. Most of the manuscripts aren't bad. Most of the writing is competent, sometimes even clever. A number seem like they could be publishable with some work--in some cases, with a lot of work. Very, very few are just not good.

There are two trends I've noticed in the unsuccessful manuscripts. Not all the unsuccessful ones fall into these catagories, but an astonishing number do.

The first is the story with the unsympathetic protagonist. If all a reader sees your "hero" do is kill or terrorize innocents, scam elderly grandmas, or say snide things to and about family and "friends," they're unlikely to care if the character escapes the trap your antagonist has set. In fact, they're more likely to hope said character gets swallowed by an anaconda.

Sure, it's fine to have a flawed protagonist. It's even fine to have a protagonist who is a criminal. Look at Dexter. Dexter is violent. Heck, Dexter is a monster. The thing about Dexter, though, is that he is sympathetic. Not because he's a monster, but in spite of it. For one thing, he only kills bad guys. The worst of the worst. But IMHO, the real reason Dexter is so popular is that there's something vulnerable about him. He's a lost kid who wants to be human--as much as he's capable of wanting--and doesn't know how. He says he's incapable of love, but you sense that he felt, if not love, then something akin to love for his foster father, Harry. He admired Harry, not least of all, for Harry's humanity. At the same time, Dexter has a sharp wit and a tilted view of humanity that allows him to make humorous yet insightful social commentary. It's a hard thing to pull off, but if you're going to put your readers in the mind of a psychopath, then you should definitely study how Jeff Lindsay makes it worth their while.

In general, though, readers want to read about characters they can like and identify with. If you want readers to invest time and emotion in your work, it's a good idea to write about people readers can care about.

The second trend I've noticed is the killer "hook" followed by forty pages of drinking coffee and picking up laundry. I'll read an amazing first chapter in which Clarinda Clarabelle snatches her baby boy from his cradle and flees through a blizzard, her maniacal, axe-wielding husband close behind her. She stumbles. The baby gives a squall of protest. A shadow passes over her, and she looks up into her husband's maddened eyes. The scene ends.

Chapter two: Twenty-six-year-old Buffy Belinda and her friends are sitting in a quaint little cafe grousing about their boyfriends, eating cream puffs, patting their skinny bellies, and moaning about how fat they are. One of them is getting married in a few days. They go try on bridesmaid's dresses. She share cute anecdotes and reminiscences. Buffy Belinda goes home and snuggles up on the couch with her cat, feeling a little sad because she just broke up with her handsome boyfriend, who is a lawyer, and while she doesn't begrudge her friend the big wedding, she can't suppress a twinge of envy. Forty pages later, as she is helping her friend attach her wedding veil, Buffy Belinda gets a run in her panty hose. She goes out to her car to get a bottle of nail polish from the glove compartment. Her cell phone rings. Her cousin Angelina has been killed while hiking the Appalachian Trail. The rangers say Angelina was killed by a bear, but that's impossible, because Angelina has always had an affinity for bears; remember how, when she was six years old, she climbed into the grizzly enclosure at the zoo and curled up with the mama grizzly and her cubs? No way would Angelina be killed by a bear.

But . . . What happened to Clarinda Clarabelle? That's the book I want to read.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to a good prologue, or even a first chapter that serves as a prologue, but that chapter should merge seamlessly with the rest of the book, not stand out like a fur coat tacked to the end of an heirloom quilt.

In some cases, it's obvious that the writer knew there was a problem with the story and tried to make up for it by putting the most exciting scene in the story--or even a tangentially related scene that wasn't originally in the story--right up front. Grab 'em by the throat and don't let go, we're told. You have to hook the reader in the beginning. True. But what do you do once you've hooked 'em?

I think the biggest reason for these problems--and most of the others I've seen--is that it's so hard to tell when your work is ready. You finish your first draft, and it seems wonderful. You love it so much you can't even see that your new literary baby is red and wrinkled and its head is a little squished on one side. Then you let it sit for awhile and it seems terrible. You edit and edit until you have something you're really proud of. Wonderful again. Then the rejections begin to roll in, and you're convinced it's the worst drivel ever written and why did you ever think you could do this anyway?

But we do it anyway. It takes a tremendous act of courage to put your work out there for others to see, even knowing that six months or a year from now, you may read over what you've written and cringe. Take heart. When you can see the previously invisible problems in your manuscript, it means you've become a better writer. And if you can write that terrific chapter one, you can write an equally terrific chapter two.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The family that reads together...

by Carola Dunn

My favourite picture from my son and family's recent visit:

My son found a history of art on my shelves; my granddaughter arrived with the 6th Harry Potter, finished it, and had to borrow the 7th on my library card--was in despair because she got only 3/4 through it before she had to leave (have you seen that book?--it's HUGE); and my daughter-in-law reading my latest.

And speaking of my latest, I was expecting the five Daisy Dalrymple titles that my UK publisher hasn't put out yet to appear in August (3) and October (2), so it was quite a surprise to find that three are already available:

What's more, the next two are coming out in a week or so:

I can only suppose my publisher has been getting requests from impatient readers, as I have. As the last three are already out in the UK, as well as the first eleven, people naturally want to read the in-between ones

But, in breaking news, I took those dates from the publisher's website, and online booksellers disagree about the availability! So perhaps they're not all coming out this month. Who can guess? Strange indeed are the ways of publishers!